The semester is drawing to a close, and it will likely prove to be one of the most difficult times in modern history. For many, the first part of 2020 has been filled with uncertainty, frustration, and disappointment; as a Pitt student enrolled in the GSL Bolivia program, these are especially true. The uncertainty regarding the program began in the fall with the political unrest in Bolivia. These concerns subsided in mid-January, as the new government was implemented, and an election was scheduled. However, COVID-19 emerged soon after, and it disrupted the GSL program, the entire Pitt semester, and the working population. While it was certainly not how I had envisioned the service-learning project to be, the lessons learned throughout this experience were invaluable as I transition into my junior year at Pitt.
One of these lessons was the importance of team. Throughout the second half of the project, I would be lying to say that it was not difficult at times. Scheduling times to meet proved to be challenging as we now had group members across various time zones. Additionally, coordinating a cohesive report and presentation were not easy to do without being able to properly brainstorm and work together in a Sennott Team Room. However, everyone in our team was very supportive of one another. If a team member had a conflict with a Zoom meeting due to the current circumstances, another groupmate would make sure to catch them up. Our team also was able to overcome the difficulties in creating deliverables virtually by breaking our group down into even further segments. It also is important to note that everyone looked out for each other and made sure no one fell behind. Additionally, we were given the option to disenroll from the course following the cancellation of our in-country travel; however, not a single person in the entire class dropped the course. This shows the dedication that every member of our group had towards our team, the in-country client, and the project itself. Without a strong team, it would have been more difficult to achieve the success that our group did with the constraints we were given, and it is a key lesson to take away from this program.
Along with lessons are transferrable (soft) skills, and adaptability has been the key skill that we have focused on throughout the entire class; this skill was even more prevalent after the travel portion of our program was cancelled. One lesson is that our group had to be adaptable was in our expectations and scope of work. Coming into the project, we had ambitious goals that we expected to achieve by the end of the semester such as getting the CEOLI cards into a retailer for in-person sales, but following the adjustments of the academic environment, these goals were no longer realistic. Our first assignment after beginning virtual classes was to revise our scope of work, something that is normally advised to never be done during a consulting project. However, the world we are living in is not normal, and we had to adapt to these realities. Changing our scope was frustrating, for we were disappointed to cut out parts of our project. However, by scheduling calls with many in-country partners, we were able to achieve many of our original deliverables and provide a strong basis for next years group. Without our ability to adapt to what we had been dealt, it would have been impossible to achieve nearly anything; it would have been easier to just give up and say, “better luck next year”. However, this project is bigger than our class in 5202 Sennott Square; the work we do is important to our client, CEOLI, and adaptability played a large part in our success. Moving forward, this skill will continue to pay dividends as I enter into my professional career. There will be challenges that no one envisioned; there will be days will thing do not go right. By having experiencing and practicing adaptability in an international context, I am confident I will be prepared for potential disruptions in the future.
As I mentioned, we were able to adapt largely by scheduling Zoom meetings with our in-country client; the ability to have the opportunity to conduct some primary research in a virtual setting is largely attributed to the strong relationship that Pitt has forged with Amizade and CEOLI. As this is the fourth year in a ten-year commitment with the client, Pitt has an obligation to carry-out the commitment that is made several years ago. However, we heard from CEOLI that many other partner Universities canceled their programs entirely due to the Bolivia political unrest; Pitt did not outright cancel the program. Even if the in-country portion was too dangerous to conduct, the University still held the GSL Bolivia course to work on the project from the United States. With the outbreak of COVID-19, Pitt did not cancel the course. Even though we were unable to travel, we continued to adapt and work on the key deliverables of our project. By continuing the program, we showed CEOLI that Pitt will continue to make progress to the project objectives even in the face of disruption. This greatly strengthen the relationship between Pitt, CEOLI, and Amizade. We heard from both Amizade and CEOLI on how grateful they were that we were continuing to work on the project for them even though we were unable to physically leave our homes and collaborate in-person. By keeping this relationship strong, it will continue to benefit students in the future, and, in turn, it will also benefit CEOLI and their students in Cochabamba.
Just as continuing the project will benefit CEOLI, I expect that it will serve me well as I enter my professional career. These lessons and skills that I have gained through this experience will be looked upon in high regard by a future employer but highlighting these challenges in an interview will be a challenge in itself. To explain this project, I will pitch the experience how it was originally designed to be: a service-learning consulting program with a semester long course and a spring break in-country component. However, I will also explain that the in-country portion was disrupted and ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19, but I have learned several valuable lessons and developed skills that I otherwise would not have. By pitching the project in this manner, I will be able to give a potential future employer the full picture of what the program was expected to be, what it ended up being, and what I have gained from the program that I can bring to their company.
Finally, as I conclude this program, a large part is looking forwards to next year. While I will not be a part of the GSL Bolivia team, it is important to maintain continuity. I also feel it is important to share the top three things that I have learned from the program that future students will hopefully find some value in:
- Approach each idea and challenge with an open mind. There are several components that made their way into our final report that were completely unreasonable just weeks prior, but with the challenges we have incurred, they now made the most sense. There will be challenges and frustrations, but by having an open mind to each potential solution, an objective result can be reached in the best interest for the client.
- Going along with that: keep the client at the center of the project. In marketing, the base concept is to keep the customer at the center of every decision that one makes. This consulting project is no different, and it perhaps is even more relevant. While what we are doing is absolutely going to benefit our professional lives in the future, service-learning requires reciprocity. In order to achieve this, we must think, “how will this affect the client?” as we make every decision throughout the program.
- Finally, no matter what, keep pushing when frustrations arise. To quote Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. There will be success, but sometimes things will also go awry. This may be a large disruption like COVID-19, or it could be a smaller setback such as a retailer rejected your proposal to have the cards in their store. Keep pushing forward, lean on your groupmates for help, and do not give up.
While this program was not how I had envisioned it when I applied in October, I know that I have gained valuable skills through these uncertain times while continuing to work across cultures in an international context. It is my hope that one day I will get to visit Cochabamba and CEOLI where I can see firsthand the work that we have accomplished, and, with a little luck, this will become a reality. Until then, I know what we have done will be extremely beneficial to CEOLI, and I am proud of the work we, as a team, have accomplished in the face of this pandemic.
This is my final blog for the GSL Bolivia program, and while I am disappointed that I could not share my in-country experience this semester, I know being a part of this program was worth it. Who knows, maybe I will be back again blogging soon to share with you my next international adventure!
Until then: Hail to Pitt!